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Don’t be intimidated by robot feeding programs

Anne Proctor and Brant Groen for Progressive Dairy Published on 11 September 2019

Feeding robot herds does not have to be intimidating. The cows still receive all the nutrients they need. However, instead of all of the nutrients being in the TMR, some are fed in the partial mixed ration (PMR), which consists of all the forages and some protein and energy sources at the feedbunk.

The remainder of the protein and energy nutrients are fed while the cows visit the robot milker. This strategy enables a nutritionist to provide more nutrients to high-producing cows and less nutrients to low-producing cows by using a feeding table.

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Many readers will remember the days when cows were fed individually in tiestall barns. All cows received their forages, and then the person doing the feeding went around the barn and decided how much protein and grain to feed based on days in milk and milk production of each cow. Nutritionists used individual milk test numbers to create a feeding chart that often contained the cow’s name or number and the amount of protein and grain to feed to support production. Many farmers then migrated to mixing a TMR and delivering the TMR to cows in the tiestall barn but continued to top-dress concentrates to the high-producing cows.

The latter strategy is similar to feeding a robot herd. Instead of handing you a feeding chart, your nutritionist will set up a feed table in the robot’s software program that goes through the same process we did when building feeding charts. The computer will look up the cow’s days in milk and production and feed her according to the feed table. A typical feeding strategy for robot herds will have separate feeding tables for first-lactation animals and animals in their second or greater lactation.

The feeding table will feed a small amount of feed through the robot the first day she goes through the robot after calving and then increase the amount each day for the first 14 to 21 days in milk. The next feeding phase will depend on each animal’s milk production, with higher producers being fed more concentrate through the robot than lower producers. Some nutritionists will adjust the feed table after peak milk to reduce concentrates fed to lower-producing animals; others will rely only on production. As a cow approaches dry-off, the feeding tables will reduce the amount of concentrate provided each day to help prepare her to move to a dry cow ration.

The challenge with feeding robot herds is balancing the nutrients provided through the PMR along with the nutrients offered through the robot. Cows go to the robot because they are looking for energy, not because their udders are full. If there’s enough energy in the PMR for the cow to meet her energy requirement from the PMR alone, she has little incentive to visit the robot. In this situation, visits to the robot will be low, and cows will not be consuming much feed in the robots. Vice versa, if there’s not enough energy in the PMR, cows will visit the robot more frequently in search of energy, which results in higher visits. However, this can create more competition for cows wanting to get into the robot.

Cows need to consume more of their nutrients through the robot to make up for what they cannot get at the feedbunk. The optimum PMR supports 15 to 20 less pounds of milk than the herd average, thereby creating incentive for all but the lowest-producing cows to visit the robot. The feeding tables will feed the low producers just enough concentrate to reward them for visiting the robot and the high producers enough to meet their requirements for milk production.

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Experience tells us it takes about 4 pounds of concentrate to get cows to use the robot consistently. The high end of concentrate feeding is dictated by rumen function. Those concentrates will be fed in four to six meals per day, so we need to be conscious of slug feeding and effects on rumen dynamics. When the PMR and feeding tables are well aligned, cows will average four to six visits to the robot, typically being milked 3X and refused at least once per day.

There are some differences in strategy between feeding a free-flow and a guided-flow layout. In both situations, the desire for feed causes the cow to go to the robot. In a free-flow system, cows look for the energy the concentrate provides. In a guided-flow system, cows also look for energy, but a sort gate determines if they go back to the feedbunk to consume more PMR or go into the holding area where they will receive concentrate when milked in the robot. Given that the animal must go through the robot to leave the holding area in a guided-flow system, concentrate provided in the robot is less of a driver for visits. This type of system can average a little as 4 pounds of concentrate per day through the robots.

Regardless of the layout, there are some settings to monitor to determine how your feeding program is working. In a free-flow system, visits and refusals tell you if you need more or less energy in the PMR. In a guided-flow system, milkings and gate passes are your indicators of cow flow. Cows need to be going through the gate both to get to the feedbunk and to get directed into the holding area for milking. If gate passes are low, look for factors that keep cows from moving around – lameness, crowding, competition, etc.

To evaluate how your feeding program is doing, first generate a report that shows days in milk, milk production, programmed feed (amount the cow should receive according to the feed table) and actual intake. Be aware: Actual intake only tells us feed was dispensed; it does not tell us if the cow ate it.

When bowls are clean, this number should represent what she consumed. However, when feed is building up in the bowls, your intake data loses value. We know feed was dropped into the bowl, but we don’t know how much any animal actually consumed. Sort your report by programmed feed and make sure it matches what you should be feeding. If it does not, review the feed tables and make sure they are programmed properly. Are animal groups assigned to the proper feed table? Is there a temporary increase/decrease limitation turned on? Have some cows been assigned to an alternate feed table or put on fixed feeding and, if so, does it still apply?

In the next step, sort cows by their feed intake. Determine how similar their intake is compared with the programmed total. It is normal for these to vary slightly due to the timing of milkings and feed carryover, but they should not consistently be several pounds lower than programmed.

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Find which animals are not consuming what they are allowed. Are they fast milkers? If so, check your feed dispense rate. You may need to drop feed faster so high producers can eat enough while they are in the box or change the setting that tells the robot when to stop dropping feed based on the number of milker cups still attached. Are they high producers? Check the maximum feed pounds per visit. If the maximum is set at 4 pounds per visit, your high-producing animal who milks 3X per day can’t get more than 12 pounds of pellet, even if your feed table says she should get 16.

In a Lely robot, feed will be dispensed when there’s a cow in the box regardless if she is putting her head down to eat. In a Delaval robot, feed is only dispensed when the animal has her head down. Are animals not comfortable in the box and therefore not putting their heads down to eat? If so, it may be cow behavior rather than programming causing the low intake. Watch these cows milk and make adjustments to the stall size if necessary.

Finally, can the cow physically consume the feed quickly? Cows can eat pellets faster than they can eat ground feed. Is the form of the feed limiting her ability to eat enough in the time allowed? If so, consider feeding something easier for her to consume or adjust your PMR and feed tables to account for less consumption in the robot.

While setting up a feeding program for a herd with robots may seem complicated, remember: It’s very similar to feeding a one-group TMR and top-dressing a concentrate. Instead of feeding a one-group TMR, a PMR is formulated that is lower in energy, and all cows get the top-dressed concentrate, not just your high producers. With this concept in mind, set up your feed tables to ramp up your fresh cows, lead feed for production prior to peak milk and then feed based on actual production for the rest of the lactation. A couple of weeks from dry-off, reduce the amount of concentrate and use the reports in the computer system to monitor the results.

Programmed total tells you how your feed table is feeding based on days in milk and production, and intake total tells you what is being dispensed into the feed bowl. If they are not eating what is programmed, make sure your feed settings match your strategy. Work closely with a nutritionist who is well versed in nutrition and also understands how to set up a feeding program that enables your cows to perform at their best in the robot barn.  end mark

Brant Groen is a nutritionist with Form-A-Feed Inc. Email Brant Groen. 

Anne Proctor
  • Anne Proctor

  • Nutritionist
  • Form-A-Feed Inc.
  • Email Anne Proctor

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